Four years later, Biden faces a different Latin America

Data from the AmericasBarometer survey shows that Latin Americans' faith in the U.S. government and democracy has declined while their trust in the Chinese government has risen along with regional concern over insecurity and corruption.


Latin American Public Opinion Project

Analysts have suggested that President Biden’s previous knowledge of Latin America can help relaunch hemispheric relationships. After all, he has only been away from the White House for four years, and during the Obama administration, was largely in charge of relations with Latin America, which he visited 16 times.

However, things have changed—some dramatically—since Biden left the White House in January of 2017. Most obviously, the impact of the pandemic on Latin America has been enormous. The IMF estimates that in 2020, the region’s economy contracted by an estimated 8.1 percent, which will impact poverty and inequality across the region. The Lancet indicated that 231 million people were living  in poverty in Latin America in late 2020, reaching levels last seen 15 years ago. In addition, other changes will challenge President Biden’s policy towards the region.

Decreased trust in the U.S. government—but increased trust in China

Surveys have shown that the opinion of the United States around the world declined during the Trump administration. The AmericasBarometer survey (based at Vanderbilt University) includes a question that goes beyond the opinion of the U.S., and more specifically focuses on whether citizens in Latin America trust the U.S. government. By early 2019, trust in the government had declined in 11 out of 17 Latin American countries included in the survey vis-à-vis the levels of trust that existed when Biden left the White House in early 2017.

The drop was noticeable in countries where citizens expressed high levels of trust in the United States government during the Obama/Biden administration, such as the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and most notably in Colombia, Costa Rica and Honduras. In Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, and Bolivia, trust in the U.S. government was already below 50 percent, but declined even further during the Trump administration. In six countries, trust in the U.S. government increased, but only slightly in 2019.

Along with the decrease of trust in the U.S. government in recent years, China also presents a serious threat to Biden’s policy aspirations in the region. China’s economic and political presence in Latin America has increased, especially in the last decade. The Obama administration had already sounded an alarm on the issue, and the Trump administration echoed those warnings.

The AmericasBarometer survey has also asked citizens in Latin America to what extent they trust the government of China. In the comparison between the trust in the government of China and the government of the U.S. in early 2017 vs. early 2019, it is noticeable that in 10 countries the U.S. government already had lower trust than the government of China in early 2017. The negative gap expanded for the U.S. in the 2019 survey. In the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador, citizens had higher trust in the U.S. government than in the government of China in 2017, but the opposite occurred in 2019. It is worth noting that both the Dominican Republic and El Salvador ended their diplomatic ties with Taiwan and established relations with China in 2018—much to the displeasure of the United States.

Overall, the numbers show that China seems to be gaining the upper hand over the United States, not only in terms of its economic presence in the region, but also in the perception of Latin American citizens.

Autocratization, democratic backsliding, and disenchantment with democracy

When Biden left the White House in early 2017, democracy faced challenges in Latin America, especially in the countries that embraced 21st century socialism (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua). However, at that point they were still considered competitive authoritarian regimes where the opposition could compete politically, despite many obstacles. Since then, two of those countries, Venezuela and Nicaragua, have become fully authoritarian regimes.

Aside from the autocratization of Venezuela and Nicaragua, nine other countries in the region experienced a decline in the quality of liberal democracy since Biden left office, as shown by the Liberal Democracy Index compiled by the V-Democracy Project. Democratic backsliding was most evident in Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The most challenging cases of authoritarianism for the incoming Biden administration to address will be the regimes of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. However, the landscape of the rest of the region is not encouraging: 12 countries received a score of 0.50 or lower in the Liberal Democracy Index in 2019, while 11 experienced a democratic decline vis-à-vis their 2016 score.

The decline in aggregate indicators of democracy was accompanied by a general disenchantment with democracy among Latin Americans. The widespread protests that occurred in 2018 and 2019 in several Latin American countries indicated citizens’ mistrust in their political system. The protests continued in 2020 despite the pandemic. According to the AmericasBarometer survey, support for democracy dropped in eight Latin American countries between early 2017 and early 2019. In addition, the percentage of Latin Americans who believed that democracy is the best possible form of government remained below 65 percent in the majority of the countries in the region in 2019—with the exception of Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Argentina. The most worrisome cases from the public opinion perspective are Guatemala, Honduras, Bolivia, and Peru, where support for democracy fell below the 50 percent mark.

The deterioration in aggregate and survey indicators of democracy is related to major problems that the incoming Biden administration will need to confront in Latin America, all of which have worsened since Biden left the White House in early 2017: corruption, common crime, and economic insecurity.

Migration on the rise

Migration will be another major issue for the Biden/Harris administration. As numerous reports have indicated, the economic situation in Venezuela has worsened in the past two years. This has triggered a massive exodus of Venezuelans and the largest refugee crisis in the history of Latin America. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that between 2016 and the end of 2019, almost 5 million Venezuelans fled the country.

A combination of dismal economic conditions, droughts, and gang violence that affect mostly low-income inhabitants, has also triggered the flight of thousands of people from the Northern Triangle in Central America—mostly to the United States. By the time Biden left office in early 2017, 41 percent      of Hondurans, 36 percent of Salvadorans, and 27 percent of Guatemalans said that they had the intention to leave their country in the next three years according to the AmericasBarometer. That percentage had declined by early 2019, especially in El Salvador, but the proportion of citizens who said they intended to leave was still very high. It is predictable that the impact of the pandemic and two major hurricanes at the end of 2020 (which affected mostly lower income segments of the population) will intensify the intention to migrate.

Regional alliances and divisions

The December 6, 2020 parliamentary election in Venezuela evidenced the complex regional rift that President Biden will encounter in Latin America when he takes office. Whereas countries in the region had deep ideological divisions during the Obama/Biden administration, they never came to be as diametrically opposed as they are now. Those divisions spill over into the main regional body, the Organization of American States (OAS), where the representation of Venezuela is in the hands of the opposition party, not the ruling Maduro government. On December 9, a resolution at the OAS condemning the December parliamentary election in Venezuela received the support of 13 Latin American countries—those belonging to the Lima Group. Notably, Mexico and Bolivia opposed the resolution, while Argentina abstained and Nicaragua was absent.

Further complicating the panorama, extra-hemispheric actors now boldly support the Venezuelan government. Russia promptly recognized the results of the December 6 election. Iran and China have also openly supported the authoritarian regime in Venezuela.

Another sign of division occurred in September 2020, with the election of the president of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Mauricio Claver-Carone, the U.S.-born candidate proposed by the Trump administration was elected, thanks to the vote of friendly countries, many of which belong to the Lima Group. Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and Peru abstained after unsuccessfully trying to postpone the election.

President Biden will find that since he left, some countries have elected presidents who are more pro-American, but others have elected presidents who are not necessarily aligned with U.S. foreign policy priorities. Many countries in the region will hold presidential elections during President Biden’s tenure, and these alliances may change; nevertheless, at the outset of his presidency, he faces a rather complex situation in Latin America.

Dinorah Azpuru is professor of political science at Wichita State University.

The AmericasBarometer survey was not conducted in Venezuela in 2019 because of the danger on the ground. Cuba is never included in the survey because of the lack of freedom to conduct an academic survey.

The author thanks Amy Erica Smith, Elizabeth Zechmeister, and Mary Malone for their comments.

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